Monday, September 10, 2007

Trial by media?

Images of Madeleine McCann have been ubiquitous throughout the summer. You couldn’t escape them, on holiday by Lake Annecy we walked onto a tiny wooden jetty by a small village and there was a photograph and an appeal for help.

During the press interviews Gerry McCann did most of the talking, but there was one point when Kate McCann interjected and appealed to the kidnapper, ‘Don’t harm her, she’s beautiful.’ No parent could fail to have been touched to the core by that emotional plea.

Within hours the Internet site coordinating the search had received millions of hits worldwide. People wanted to ‘do something’. Maybe in a world so vast some issues are too large or complex to comprehend, how can one person tackle global warming, poverty or the nightmare that is Darfur? As Primo Levi noted the Holocaust and the vast scale of the slaughter of six million people was beyond most people’s understanding, yet one child’s suffering, Anne Frank, and individuals could relate to that.

In an era when people are disengaging from civic involvement – voting, writing letters, attending meetings – here was something almost unprecedented, mass involvement. Possibly it was because this was a cause with no shades of grey; there weren’t people ‘for’ or ‘against’ finding Madeleine.

With that slight abnormality in her eye and living in the global village where every movement is recorded by a host of CCTV cameras finding her should have been a synch. Yet as the months rolled by the ‘sightings’ turned to nothing.

For the press it was a chance in the ‘silly season’ (normally dominated by whales in the Thames, UFOs and Big Brother) to get serious, the blanket coverage would get results. The press set the tone – paedophile abducts child, grieving parents and bumbling foreign police with their halting English. Naturally if a Portuguese child disappeared in England they would find a local police inspector with faultless Portuguese.

The first crack in the wall came at a press conference in Berlin when a foreign journalist asked, ‘Have you acted like normal parents?’ This act of lese-majeste was met with silence and incredulity by the British press pack.

For me there was always a question, were the childcare arrangements for the McCann children on that fateful night adequate? When my children were young we never left them unattended at night, it was one of the sacrifices you made, as children arrived your social life and most other parts of your life just disappeared (I was known as the Olympic flame – I never went out). I’m not saying the McCanns were bad parents, or that I was Superdad, I wasn’t.

Let’s just consider the following scenario; unemployed single parent Tracy Smith is enjoying a week’s holiday in Benidorm with her three children, on the last night she is enjoying a drink with some friends in the hotel bar, she is ‘within sight’ of her apartment, when she goes to make one of her regular checks the eldest has been abducted. The press eat her alive. Social services take the rest of her children into care. Cue moral panic. Gordon Brown wants parenting lessons for the unemployed and Davis Cameron goes one better by demanding compulsory membership of the Mothers’ Union.

From the start the McCanns had the kid glove treatment, after all they were articulate professionals. Now we have the unseemly sight of the press pack in full cry, they can almost literally smell blood and the vicious rumours that have circulated in Portugal about the McCanns are now being recycled by the tabloids. Ex-detectives are entertaining us with different ‘versions’ of how the blood appeared in the car. The character assassination of the McCanns has begun.

The tabloids always deal in moral absolutes, that also translates to individuals, you only need to read the sports pages, players are either ‘heroes’ or ‘zeroes’. As the press can promote, encourage or elevate people into the status of icons so they can also turn and devour them.

We now have the unedifying sight of ‘trial by media’. Will there be a happy ending for Madeleine or the McCanns? I don’t think so.


I find it strange to accuse the media of character assassination.

Not least because the PR campaign behind them is provided by the British foreign office.

It is fair enough to suggest Robert Murat has been hung out to dry by the media, or the Portugese police... but the McCann's?

I don't think so.
Mebbe it's just me, but I'd never have even considered leaving my kids at that age, "in sight" or not. I still don't, and they're 10 and 8 now. Every new twist to this story just makes me shake my head in despair.
Well thought out post.

Let's hope there is a happy ending.
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